Ditch your ever-growing to do list and do this instead

Jenna Hellberg
6 min readDec 7, 2019

Yes — to-do lists and brain dumps are a great way to get things out of your head, so that you can free up that brain space instead of trying to remember everything.

The problem is, when things are on a never-ending/ever-growing to-do list we take that list at face value.

We don’t really evaluate the tasks, we rarely think about whether or not we actually need to do those things once some weeks (or months) have gone by — yet we let that to-do list overwhelm us all the hours of the day.

I don’t keep an ongoing to-do list of all the things I need to get done anymore, but I do have a system that makes sure that I actually get the important things done.

I used to have notebooks filled with to-do lists and tasks that I wanted to get to. Someday.

If I somehow had time for other things than my most urgent and seemingly important tasks, I would sneak a peek at the lists and pick some things to do.

Almost two years ago I started planning my weeks on the Friday or Sunday before, putting in to-do tasks into those weeks from my lists. This way at least some of them were actually seeing the light of day, I started getting things done, and felt awesome — for a while.

That massive back-log of tasks started weighing me down mentally again — I kind of knew there was just not enough time to do them all but held onto a *maybe someday* dream.

I think I got stuck in this cycle partly because I’ve lived in America for so long now, that the mentality of “as long as we want something bad enough, we can accomplish anything” has stuck. But we really are limited by the time that’s given to us per day — we can’t do everything.

About 8 months ago I started wondering how I could approach tasks by going back to my pragmatic Finnish ways.

I decided to really simplify my processes and to-do lists, because I felt so overwhelmed knowing that the lists were there, but not getting much attention. And I succeeded in not only minimizing my to-do list, but I ended up with a whole new system for how I got the things that I truly need to get done without that ongoing to-do list.

Benefits of moving on from ongoing to-do lists:

#1 I don’t feel overwhelmed with a major list of tasks that make me feel behind before I’ve even started

#2 I feel proud, capable, and confident because I can see myself making progress every day

#3 I know exactly when things are going to get done, instead of scratching my head at the start of each day, using up my focus, time, and energy just to figure out what is most important on the list

#4 I got out of the cycle of only tackling urgent things while neglecting the things that I feel would be important

#5 I don’t feel as weighed down by all the things that I have not yet accomplished, and that I might get to “someday” — which we all know means never

#6 I know when I’m done for the day

Now — let’s dive into the process! (Go here to get downloadable worksheets to work through the process.)

Step 1: brain dump / get it all together

I gathered all the to-do lists I had hanging around, and also added everything new I had on my mind to the lists, so that I could be faced with them all. If you don’t have everything already listed out on paper or in a digital file, start with doing a brain dump.

Step 2: get honest with yourself and be brutal with your list

I went through those lists, crossed off everything that no longer was relevant, or that wasn’t as important as the other things. Basically, I decided to eliminate 80–90% of all the tasks I had in front of me — which felt amazing.

The remaining tasks were actually important to do, not because they were urgent or because someone else told me to do them, but because I knew that I needed to do them in order to go forwards in my business or in my life.

Step 3: schedule everything

Then I scheduled these into my weekly plans for the next few weeks, on specific days, some at specific times.

I had heard the phrase “What gets scheduled, get’s done!” in some form or another from different podcasts or videos, and I can say that that’s 100% true!

Step 4: future log

If there’s something I know I need to do in more than a month from now, I will put a reminder of the task into that month in my calendar, but I don’t designate an exact date to it yet. Once that month approaches, I will pop those tasks into an appropriate day on my weekly schedule.

Step 5: reality check

If something is not important enough to fit in my schedule, I really question if it’s important enough to do in the first place. Then I either let it go, or find a place for it.

There are of course times when things don’t go just as we planned, so let’s cover a few of those:

Life happened? That’s ok.

Sometimes life happens and I don’t get something done on the exact day it was planned or even that week. Sometimes I find a new spot on my schedule for that task right away, and I also take some time at the end of the week to see what didn’t get done and move those tasks over to the following week or two, so that the tasks don’t get forgotten.

Actually I recently had a week that did not go to plan AT ALL — if you’d like to know how I managed to turn things around after not getting much done in the first three days of the week, let me know in the comments!

Keep postponing a task? Unblock yourself.

Sometimes I keep pushing a task back for some reason, even if I still see that task as important. In those cases, I get curious. I figure out what’s blocking me from doing that task, and then I tackle that block first.

Maybe the task needs to be divided into smaller tasks, maybe the task is not clear enough, maybe there’s something else that needs to be done or needs to happen before I can work on that task. Sometimes finishing a task might bring up uncomfortable feelings, like fear or nervousness about what comes after finishing the task. When you acknowledge that feeling fully, it’s easier to move on from it.

A task is no longer relevant? Yay!

Sometimes a task is no longer important when it pops up on my tasks for the day, which means that I get to cross it off and fill that time with something else.

Step 6: stick with it

Since I got rid of my ongoing to-do list I’ve been putting my tasks directly onto the schedule in the next few weeks whenever they pop up. I don’t worry about them, I don’t have anxiety over when I can get all of it done, because I know EXACTLY when I’m going to get things done.

This is how I get all my important things done without relying on an ongoing — never-ending — to-do list. I would love to hear in the comments if you followed the process and how you feel about it!

Want to free up time inside your business asap? Start with the Instant Relief guide, which includes a 4-step exercise that helps you drop time-consuming marketing tasks without sacrificing progress. Grab it here.

Listen to the Building Balance podcast for weekly thoughts and tips around time management, productivity, and work-life balance — find in your fave podcast app.

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Jenna Hellberg

Helping small business owners make progress without hustle. Get my free planning guide that helps you prioritize impactful tasks: www.jennahellberg.com/plan